Skip to main content

Seven Tales of the Pendulum – Gregory L. Baker ***

There was a time when practically every review we published of an OUP popular science book had the same complaint. What we were forced to say again and again was that this was a book with a great idea, an excellent topic, and an expert writing it. But unfortunately that expert was an academic who didn’t have a clue how to write for the general public and the result was unreadable. In the last year or so, however, things have changed. OUP has come out with a good number of titles (e.g. The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III) which have been surprisingly readable. Unfortunately, this title is a return to form. It’s a wonderful subject. It has a neat concept in the ‘seven tales’. It’s written by an expert. But it is practically impenetrable.
Things don’t start awfully well in the introduction, when Gregory L. Baker is a little condescending about producing a version of his ‘real’ book for the common herd. But he also reassures us ‘Readers may rest easy knowing that I am mindful of the warning made famous by Stephen Hawking, that every formula reduces the readership by a factor of two.’ The problem is, although it sold well, Hawking’s book has a reputation for being difficult. Yet it is vastly easier to read than this one.
This limitation is frustrating, because Baker does pack in lots of interesting stuff about pendulums. Whether it’s the basic surprise that (despite Galileo), on the whole an ordinary pendulum’s timing isn’t independent of swing size, or explorations of Foucault’s pendulum, torsion pendulums, swinging censors in cathedrals and even the Pit and the Pendulum, there is some excellent material to cover. But the writing is rarely approachable and the author simply misses the whole idea of how to write for a general audience. This is much more the sort of writing you’d find in an undergraduate physics textbook.
I opened a page at random and had a choice of at least four quotes to demonstrate this. Here’s one of them: ‘A sophisticated mathematical procedure may be used to calculate the fractal dimension for the Poincaré section of the chaotic pendulum. But our intuition can at least help demystify the result. Close examination of the Poincaré section shows that its points do not cover an area, but are really a (possibly infinite) set of closely spaced lines. Therefore the Poincaré section is more than a line and less than an area. We then expect its dimension to like between one and two. For the parameter set A(Forcing)=1.5, Q (friction)=4, ωD(forcing frequency)=0.66 the fractal dimension is found to be 1.3. In fact, it is generally true that Poincaré sections for chaotic systems have noninteger dimensions.’ That’s all right then.
The other potential quotes were more dense and impenetrable. You might excuse this because some of the terms have been explained earlier, but the problem is that the approach assumes the way to write popular science is to take a textbook and take out the maths, leaving the explanatory parts, rather than starting from scratch and putting things in terms that people will understand.
Overall, then, a useful and interesting book for physics students who want to find out more about pendulums without doing the maths, but not for the general reader.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…